Oireachtas Committee rejects passenger records proposals

The Irish Times is reporting that the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny (a cross party committee which examines proposed EU legislation) has published a report which is highly critical of European proposals on passenger records.

The draft Framework Decision on the Use of Passenger Name Record (PNR) for Law Enforcement is an astonishing proposal which, if passed, would establish giant databases tracking the travel of every individual, logging details of every flight they make and keeping that information for 13 years. That information could then be accessed and shared with other countries without any individual suspicion, much less any form of warrant or prior permission. The proposal envisages using this information for “profiling” of all passengers. As originally proposed, the database would apply only to international flights (entering or leaving the EU) but some states are now pushing to extend this to include all flights within the EU while the UK is taking this further still and is seeking to create a database of all ferry and rail traffic within the EU.

This proposal has already been the subject of criticism across Europe from, for example, the European Data Protection Supervisor. In a presentation to the Joint Committee the Data Protection Commissioner clearly explained why the proposal is unacceptable:

We all support reasonable and proportionate measures to counter violence perpetrated against innocent people, but such measures should represent a proper balance between the need to combat such illegality and the rights of the innocent majority to go about their daily lives without undue interference by the State. In my opinion, and that of my EU colleagues, the Commission proposal fails this test. The proposal involves an obligation on air carriers to transmit to a state authority, called a “passenger information unit”, the PNR information that the passenger has provided to the air carrier in respect of any journey by air into or out of the European Union. The information typically includes contact details, such as address, phone number and e-mail, as well as payment information, such as credit card details. Under the proposal, the information has to be retained by the passenger information unit for a total of 13 years.

Such information is given by a passenger for the purpose of the provision of a service, namely air travel. The Commission proposal is that this information should be transmitted to state authorities for a totally different purpose, the combating of what is described as terrorism and organised crime. It is a basic data protection principle that information collected for one purpose should not be used for another purpose and should be deleted when no longer required for the purpose for which it was collected. The Commission proposal offends against this basic principle. Under the proposal, air carriers will have no choice but to hand over a complete record of an individual’s movements in and out of the European Union to a state entity that will retain it for 13 years, and not only a record of travel, but also of contact and payment information.

Many regular travellers would have difficulty recalling where they had travelled to, even in the past year. With this proposal, the state will have a detailed record of all such travel in and out of the European Union, and for a period going back 13 years. Therefore, whether it is a business trip to Singapore, a shopping trip to New York or a holiday in Morocco, the state will have full details. Can this invasion of individual privacy be considered a proportionate response to threats from the small number who may be tempted to engage in terrorism or organised crime?

One must also have concern for the ability of the state to protect the confidentiality of such information. Recent cases investigated by my office have, unfortunately, demonstrated that deliberate or inadvertent leaking or misuse of such information is a significant risk. Experience in other EU countries is no different…

There is little hard evidence of the actual usefulness of PNR passenger data in combating terrorism or organised crime. All we are presented with is general comments that such information is useful, with a small number of examples. There is even less evidence of the additional utility of PNR data over the more reliable API data that is already being collected. The result is that a key test under European law — that of proportionality — does not seem to be met. Even if one were to accept the case presented for this proposal — I do not — the protection provided for the innocent majority who have nothing to do with terrorism or organised crime is vague and inadequate. These deficiencies are spelled out in the written opinion my EU colleagues have already delivered and which has been provided to the committee.

If this proposal is implemented, we will have taken a further step to what has been called the surveillance society, where our day-to-day activities are constantly monitored and our private space is more and more restricted. We already have a situation, under data retention law, where the details of who we communicate with electronically is compulsorily stored, in case it would be useful for the investigation of crime. With this proposal, our international travel movements will be monitored by the State for the same reason. Can it only be a matter of time before this is extended to all of our movements? (Emphasis added)

The Joint Committee has now accepted these points (and also pointed out that – incredibly – neither Ryanair nor EasyJet were consulted in relation to the proposal).

What can you do about this? The responsible Irish official is the Minister for Justice. You might like to let him know that your privacy is important, and that the proposals (which Ireland has supported) are unacceptable. Ask him why he has ignored the concerns raised by the Data Protection Commissioner and proceeded with a measure based on “little evidence” with “vague and inadequate protections” for your personal information. Ask him whether he plans to ignore the concerns raised by our democratic representatives in the Joint Oireachtas Committee. Contact details? Email: minister@justice.ie, Phone: 01 602-8202 (ask for the Minister’s Office), Fax: 01 661-5461, Snail Mail: 94 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2. And of course you should cc your local TDs (details here) and let them know that this issue is important to you in deciding how you will vote.